Sailing through Bratislava

The phone rang in our room just after 5:30 AM on Friday July 5th, and upon answering it, I heard our Program Director Leonard say, “I’m sorry to disturb you David, but you asked me for a wake-up call so you could come and watch us enter our first lock on the Danube. We’ll be there in about 45 minutes”.  And with that, Mary and I rolled out of bed, showered, put on some warm clothes (it was going to be cool up on the deck that early), grabbed a coffee at the mid-ship “fueling station”, and went up top to take in the spectacle of our first lock entry.

You can see by the flags in the picture above, there was a bit of a morning breeze, but we had clear blue skies and had been promised a comfortable day with temperatures climbing to the mid-80’s (high of 29 celsius) – a day which we would spend almost entirely on the Danube.

There was a buzz among the passengers who had joined us on the upper deck, and as promised, Captain Anne began steering the Viking Lif toward the locks at the Gabčíkovo Dam.

The dam at Gabčíkovo consists of two main structures: a hydropower plant and two lock chambers, one of which we were about to enter. It was designed to use the differential water level to produce electricity, to allow ships to pass safely through locks and to divert flood water. The chambers are on the left bank of the Danube in Hungary, and the power plant is on the right side, in Slovakia. Program director Leonard told us this first lock would lift the ship up about 20 metres higher than the level that we were currently at.

Leonard announced that we were going to have wait about 45 minutes before entering the lock due to another ship having beaten us to the Gabčíkovo locks. The Captain deftly steered us over to the right bank of the Danube into a waiting position, and Mary watched in admiration at the skill involved in piloting and maneuvering the ship.

While we waited, Leonard told us that there were no lock fees involved in using the lock system along the Danube since the river was shared by five countries, all of whom benefit from river-facilitated commerce.

Then, shortly before 7:30, the lock gates began to open, and we watched a smaller ship pass us on the left and enter the lock first. Apparently we were going to dock alongside it, and those of us on the top deck began moving from one side to the other to watch this happen.

Check out the video at the link below and watch as Captain Anne brings the Viking Lif alongside the low-lying coal barge to our right.

As Captain Anne checked our position against the left hand wall, the gates behind us began closing, and we watched and listened as water began to flood into the lock

In the sequence below, you can see in the first picture on the left, the ship has almost risen to the next level of the Danube, in the middle picture, the water is now over the top of the lock gate; and in the last picture (on the right), the gates are opening below the water level, and we are on our way out. The entire process from entry to exit took roughly 45 minutes.

I don’t think I’ve mentioned it in any previous blog entries, but Mary and I are avid bird-watchers (she is by far the more knowledgeable of the two of us, but I certainly enjoy it as much as she does). So why mention it now, you might ask???? Because just about an hour after we had left the locks behind us, and on a fairly pedestrian stretch of shoreline, I suddenly noticed a large shape-shifting mass in the air, off to the right of the ship. Mary gasped and explained to me “that is called a “murmuration”, and it is a phenomenon that results when hundreds, sometimes thousands of the same species of bird (most often starlings and swallows), fly in swooping, intricately coordinated patterns across the sky”. She went on to say that she had read about the phenomenon, even seen video footage of it, but until that moment, had never seen it live, and hadn’t thought she ever would. Check out the video link below. It is really quite amazing.

A little more than 30 minutes after watching that remarkable bird show, Leonard announced that we were approaching Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I was really quite delighted about it, since I didn’t realize we would be going through Slovakia when I first booked this trip back in January. I didn’t really know what to expect, and the picture below offers our first glimpse of the skyline upon approach.

Bratislava has a population of about 450,000, making it one of the smallest capital cities in the world, and given its proximity to the border of Austria (just 11 miles away), it is the only national capital in the world that borders on two countries. It has been the capital of Slovakia since that country’s independence in 1993, but I was surprised to learn that it had earlier been the capital of Hungary from 1536 to 1784. Prior to 1919, it was mostly known in English by its German name, Pressburg, and we saw evidence of that name as we passed through the city on the Danube. After World War I and the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, the city was incorporated into the new state. The Slovak Republic was briefly independent in 1939, but the new state quickly fell under Nazi influence and the new government cooperated in deporting most of Bratislava’s Jews, numbering close to 15,000. Anticipating the fall of communism, the city became one of the foremost centres of the anti-communist “Velvet Revolution” in 1989. Bratislava has flourished in the post-communist era, and enjoys a healthy economy, a highly skilled labour force, and a rapidly growing tourism industry. I was sad that Bratislava was not one of the designated stops on our cruise.

You can see from the skyscrapers and cranes in the pictures above, that there is quite a modern feel to the city, and it is home to service centres for many global companies including IBM, Dell, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, and Volswagen.

Just beyond these buildings, we passed a statue that stands in the forecourt of a major shopping centre. It commemorates Milan Rastislav Stefanik, Slovak politician, diplomat, aviator and astronomer who died in 1919 under tragic and questionable circumstances at the age of 39.

He was one of the leading members of the Czechoslovak National Council (the resistance Government) that fought for Czechoslovakian sovereignty before the disintegration of the Austrio-Hungarian Empire in 1918.

The picture below is of a facility called The Stredna Priemyselna Skola Strojnicka building, and it houses the Secondary Technical School of Mechanical Engineering.

I spent a considerable amount of time trying to find out more about the building’s history or original purpose but could find nothing about it prior to 1951, when it became an engineering school, a function that it serves to this day. I just loved the architecture and included it in this journal for that very reason.

Images like the one below are tantalizing to me, as it teases and hints at streets, buildings and history to be explored. I want to visit this city one day and do exactly that.

As we moved along the Bratislava shoreline, we inched ever closer to Most Slovenského národního povstání, better known and abbreviated as the SNP bridge.

Built between 1967 and 1972, it is the world’s longest single-pylon suspension bridge, with a main span of 303 metres, or slightly more than the length of 3 football fields. The bridge has four lanes for motor traffic on the upper level, and lanes for bicycles and pedestrians on the lower level. Sadly, a significant section of Bratislava’s Old Town below Bratislava Castle was demolished to create the roadway which leads to it.

A special attraction is the flying saucer-shaped structure housing a restaurant located 278 feet high, atop the bridge’s pylon.

Once underneath and beyond the bridge, we quickly closed in on Bratislava Castle, which you could see in the distance in the first picture (above) of the SNP bridge.

It is situated on a plateau that is 279 feet above the Danube, and the castle hill site has been inhabited for well over 2,000 years. The first stone castle was not constructed on the site until the 10th century when the area was part of the Kingdom of Hungary. It was modified and rebuilt several times in a number of different architectural styles and under Queen Maria Theresa, the castle became a prestigious royal seat. In 1811, the castle was accidentally destroyed by fire and lay in ruins until the 1950’s when it was rebuilt in a manner resembling its former Theresian style.

The next historical building we passed by was St. Martin’s Church, the largest and one of the oldest churches in Bratislava.

It is prominent in history for having served as the coronation church of the kingdom of Hungary from 1563 to 1830. In total, the coronations of 11 kings and queens plus 8 of their consorts occurred here, including that of Maria Theresa of Austria, whom we heard about repeatedly throughout much of the cruise.

You can see from the picture below (left), Mary and I were not the only ones enthralled by the Bratislava scenery, and in the picture on the right, you can see one of the cities’ well developed residential communities built into the side of the hill (you might be able to make out the name Pressburg on the side of the floating restaurant).

The wonderful thing about this river cruise is that you never know what is around the next bend…….and in this case, it was our first glimpse of the spectacular ruins of Devin Castle, located at the confluence of the Danube and Morava rivers which separates Slovakia from Austria.

Before we closed in on the ruins of the castle, we first passed by the village of Devin which previously formed part of the Iron Curtain between the Eastern and Western Blocs of Europe.

During the Cold War, Devin was just inside the Iron Curtain and the banks of both the Danube and the Morava rivers were heavily fortified until 1989. Today, there is a lovely bike path (part of the Iron Curtain Trail) that runs through the village and along the banks of the river and there are various signs, markers, statues and memorials that detail the history of the area.

The one that intrigued me the most is called “the Heart of Europe” (below), and it is made from barbed wire torn form the border fence that separated Czechoslovakia from Austria.

Devin Castle sits 212 metres (695 feet) above the river banks making it an ideal place for a fort. Its owner could control the trade route along the Danube as well one branch of the Amber Road – an ancient trade route used for the transfer of Amber between the North and Baltic Seas, and the Mediterranean. That is why the site has been settled for more than 3,500 years.

Strong fortresses have existed here going back to the Neolithic Age, and later both the Celts and Romans built strong fortifications on this site. In 1809, Napoleon ordered the castle to be destroyed as part of regional military neutralization.

Prior to 1989, the Iron Curtain ran just in front of the castle ruins. Although the castle was open to the public, the area around it constituted a restricted military zone, and was heavily fortified with watchtowers and barbed wire.

In the picture above (lower left hand side), and in the centre of the picture below, there is a tiny watchtower, known as the Maiden Tower.

Separated from the main castle, it balances precariously on a lone rock and has spawned countless legends concerning imprisoned lovelorn daughters leaping to their deaths.

The Devin Castle ruins are important to the Slovak people, and are said to symbolize Slavic fellowship and unity. It is a national cultural monument, depicted on Slovak stamps and old coins.

Leaving Bratislava and its history behind us, we were now less than 50 kilometres from Vienna, our final destination for this day. Along the way we passed by a number of small towns and villages like Hainburg an der Donau, (seen in the picture below). It was a truly wonderful experience to be gliding toward a city that I had been curious to see since I was a teenager playing Johan Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz on the piano.

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